This article first appeared in Vintage Fashion & Costume
Jewelry, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2004, Pages 16-19, and used with Permission.
Victoria Flemming: An Independent Woman
By Cheri Van Hoover
At the estate sale of a wealthy man of taste and discrimination I
happened upon a collection of hand painted porcelain cufflinks, all
marked VICTORIA FLEMMING. Some were also marked N.Y. They appeared to
date to the 1950s or 1960s, and were of very high quality. I became
intrigued. One inquiry led to another, and before I knew it I was on
the phone talking to one of the most delightful women it's been my
privilege to know. I am honored to be able to tell her story to this
From top: Opal fused glass cufflinks; blue fused glass; amber fused glass; Victoria Flemming's mark.
Born in 1918, Victoria Pasternack was the daughter of a musical
family of modest means. She was raised in New Jersey, where as a
young woman she took her first job working at Fulper Pottery. She
did underglaze painting for Fulper, and reports that the work was
hard and dirty. "I can still feel that clay beneath my
fingernails." Despite the way her neck and shoulders ached at the
end of each day, she did well at the job, working so fast the other
women asked her to go slower so their daily quotas wouldn't be
increased. The salary of $13.00 per week seemed too little for the
hard work she was doing, so Victoria moved on to New York City after
only 1-1/2 months at Fulper.
In New York, she continued to learn the craft of china painting.
She worked at a variety of factories and small workshops producing
dinnerware, lamp bases, and personalized cigarette boxes. One day a
fellow visiting one of these workshops put some porcelain brooches
into the kiln to fire. Victoria was fascinated by the idea of
painted porcelain jewelry, and a new career was born.
Her first venture into selling this jewelry was at the Greenwich
Village Art Show at 8th Street and 6th Avenue. This was New York's
earliest craft show venue, in the heart of the avant-garde artists'
community that was setting the standard in the United States for
modern art expression of all types. Victoria thrived in this richly
creative environment, where she also met her second husband. He was
a handsome, charming, sweet talker with a knack for salesmanship.
After he was kicked out of the show for selling leather goods
crafted by others at his own booth, he found his way to Victoria's
stall and began hawking the brooches and earrings she made.
Immediately, her sales shot up! Victoria's first husband, Andrew
Flemming, had provided her professional name. This second husband,
Bill Dwyer, located a source for the marked findings she used for
her cufflinks and other jewelry and taught her the fine art of
making people want to buy your product.
Skitch Henderson, conductor and founder of the New York Pops, was
indirectly responsible for a new direction which eventually became
her entire line. Some of his friends visited her booth and were
impressed by the bold modernist look of her jewelry. They wanted to
buy cufflinks for Skitch, which she wasn't producing at that time.
Her husband told her he'd take care of it, and soon came up with a
source for cufflink backs. Her career as a designer and
manufacturer of men's jewelry was off and running, with Skitch
Henderson as one of her first customers.
Moritimer Levitt, owner of the Custom Shirt Shop Shirtmakers who became Flemming's biggest customer.
She began to display from a booth on 57th Street. One day, Mortimer
Levitt and his wife walked past and saw visiting conventioneers
eagerly purchasing cufflinks as souvenirs of their visit to New
York. Mr. Levitt, a high school dropout, was the owner of the
Custom Shop shirtmakers. In 1938 he had begun an innovative
business which sold custom-made shirts at prices comparable to
ready-made merchandise. This wildly successful venture eventually
expanded to 80 stores nationwide. During World War II most shirts
had button cuffs, rather than French cuffs, because of fabric
shortages and the lack of metals for use in cufflinks. Now that the
war was over, Mr. Levitt was promoting the revival of more formal
and elegant French cuff shirts. Mrs. Levitt, a woman well known for
her exquisite taste, encouraged her husband to commission Victoria
to make cufflinks to be sold in the Custom Shop stores. She
believed he would sell more French cuff shirts if he could also
offer quality jewelry to go with them.
Victoria remembers clearly the day she first went to the Custom
Shirt offices to meet with Mr. Levitt and his general manager. She
says she was wearing a straw hat with a ribbon down her back and a
blue dress with white polka dots. Although she was in her early 30s
at that time, she must have looked very young (and I suspect very
pretty), because Mr. Levitt was quite taken aback when he saw her.
"I didn't realize you were so young!" he said.
Victoria just looked at him coolly and replied, "Well, if you do business with me, you'll find out how young I really am."
Mr. Levitt must have been quite impressed with her, because his
general manager appeared not to be impressed at all. The manager
treated Victoria with thinly veiled contempt and urged Levitt to
accept the cufflinks only on consignment. Since the order being
discussed was for the princely sum of $500.00, Victoria held her
ground. Finally, Mr. Levitt intervened.
"Don't you think we can afford $500.00?" he said to his manager.
So Victoria had her commission and began a long and profitable
relationship with Custom Shops. Twice each year she would bring her
new design prototypes to the Custom Shop headquarters where Mr.
Levitt and his entire staff would look at the pieces and vote on
which would be put into production. Mr. Levitt remarked on one
occasion that it was interesting to him how rarely his choices won.
This clever use of his staff as a form of early focus group is a
telling example of his business acumen. Victoria Flemming cufflinks
sold for $3.50 at the Custom Shop and were featured in the store
windows. She received $1.75 per pair.
Victoria Flemming painted poodle cufflinks.
Bill Dwyer was a native of New Orleans, so the couple moved with
their children to that city. Victoria rented a stall in the Court
of the Two Sisters, the famous outdoor restaurant at the heart of
the French Quarter. For $20 a month she had access to hordes of
tourists bent on enjoying themselves to the fullest at this
epicenter of carefree abandon. Needless to say, her business
thrived. Unfortunately, the marriage did not. Mr. Dwyer found it
much more pleasant to pass the days socializing with friends and
flirting with pretty tourists than applying himself to making a
living. Independent and plain-talking, Victoria found it easier to
go on without him, despite having two young children.
By this time, however, she was in love with New Orleans, and that's
where she stayed to raise her children. When the owner of the Court
of the Two Sisters tried to raise her rent to $50 a month, she used
her powers of persuasion to talk him down to $35. Eventually, the
restaurant changed hands after the owner's wife died under
mysterious circumstances, and Victoria was forced to move her
operations around the corner to a stall off Royal Street, painting
the cufflinks at the back of the stall while selling finished
product at the front.
Victoria considered herself primarily a china painter; in the long
tradition of women artists who have done this work both
professionally and as hobbyists. What set her apart from the
others, however, were her choice of subject matter and her bold use
of color. Traditional china painting was soft and romantic,
frequently using flowers or other scenes from nature as their
themes. Victoria's designs were, in her words, "more modernistic"
and "stylized." When asked about the inspiration for these choices,
she is at a loss to explain. "I just sit and look at the pieces of
porcelain, and then the design just comes out of me." It is
interesting to note, however, that she never truly thought of
herself as either an artist or a craftsperson. "I was a mother
trying to support her kids."
The biggest changes to her jewelry line over the years were the
elimination of the brooches and earrings after cufflinks became her
most successful product and the development of a second technique
using fused glass on porcelain. Flat porcelain was used as the base
for these cufflinks, then opaque and translucent glass shards were
balanced atop the porcelain and fired. Lacy designs of gold gilt
were then painted over the fused layers and the pieces were fired
again. Different types of glass required different temperatures and
firing times, so one pair of cufflinks might go into the kiln
anywhere from 2 to 4 times. The resulting highly dimensional
organic shapes, rich colors, and complex patterns make it easy to
see why these fused glass pieces were so popular.
The greatest challenge faced by this small business was copying.
Victoria tried to keep her design ideas fresh and new, to stay ahead
of the competition. The man who custom manufactured her porcelain
blanks once came to her and told her someone else had approached him
and asked him to make the blanks for them, too. He asked if
Victoria minded. She told him she certainly did, and he agreed to
continue to produce exclusively for her. Because of her fears of
copying, she rarely employed anyone to help her with production.
She says she hired one young woman for a while, but never allowed
her to see the entire process from beginning to end.
In 1967, Victoria's career took an interesting new twist. A friend
who owned a neighborhood bar around the corner from her stall
decided to sell it. Victoria had never been in a bar, and was
appalled the first time he took her there. In fact, she fled in
horror down the street, as she had never seen such a "den of
iniquity." But he came after her, laughing, calmed her down, and
took her back with him. Once she got inside, she discovered it
wasn't so bad after all. So she bought it.
For a few years, Victoria continued to make jewelry in the back room
of the bar. But soon she found herself with little time and even
less motivation. The bar was a far more profitable business than
jewelry had ever been. And then she was offered the opportunity to
buy a second bar, and then a third. So Victoria Flemming, now
Victoria Hansen after a brief marriage to yet another very handsome
man, became the busy proprietor of three 24 hour bars in New
Orleans. By the early 1970s she was no longer painting porcelain.
Today she is 85 years old. She lives in the beautiful Esplanade
Ridge District in a restored antebellum two story four column home
furnished with antiques. A gardener/handyman/chauffeur assists her
with daily activities, and her daughter lives nearby. Jewelry
making stopped being part of her life 30 years ago, but she is proud
to know that cufflink collectors continue to value and seek out her
work. Victoria Flemming is an incredibly inspirational woman whose
life has been proof that independence, courage, hard work, and
talent can take an entrepreneur to astonishing levels, even when
living, as she did, in an era when barriers to female achievement
Sadly, Victoria Hansen (AKA Victoria Flemming) passed away on
July 27, 2004 at the age of 85. We will miss her very much.
© Copyright 2004 Vintage Fahion & Costume Jewelry - Used with permission
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